Author: Norton Juster
Artist: Jules Feiffer
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: April 2016
The Phantom Tollbooth is a fantasy for obsessive readers, or at least the word-savvy. Milo drives a small car through a portal, but this Narnia is not quite as tactile or grounded as your standard tale. With a dozen puns per page, it’s a book about ideas, using the structure of a whimsical adventure to lead the reader along.
The whole thing is a lot of fun, but then again as an adult I get most of the jokes. (A few are outdated. Like the creature DYNNE who represents a “din” of sound. I’m not sure I’ve ever used “din” in regular conversation.) What reading level is this book aimed toward? I suppose a young kid could enjoy some of the goofiness, what with the watchdog Tock and the Humbug as the two main sidekicks. There are kings and princesses and witches (the “Which”). But it would take years of reading regular stories and being pretty good at vocab to pick up on everything that’s going on.
The text is the point of the book, but the drawings are its soul. Maurice Sendak, in his appreciation at the beginning, praises Feiffer’s “superb scratchy-itchy pen drawings” as done by “that rare artist who can draw an idea.” The drawings capture the spirit of the book perfectly, to the point that in one place Juster, after giving a paragraph of description, just shrugs and states, “Perhaps if you look at the picture you’ll know what I mean.” I enjoy collecting exceptional examples of the artist/author match (The One and Only Ivan, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Wildwood), and this book seems to be a gold standard.
I can understand criticisms that The Phantom Tollbooth is a bit too episodic and committed to its own cleverness. It cuts both ways. There are bullseye lessons, like the Mathemagician’s remark, “You’ll find that the only thing you can do easily is be wrong, and that’s hardly worth the effort.” But at other points, especially toward the end, too many ideas vie for space and fall flat. (Of the demons in the Mountains of Ignorance, the Threadbare Excuse and the Gross Exaggeration make perfect sense. But what’s with the Horrible Hopping Hindsight or the Triple Demons of Compromise? Are these two concepts inherently evil? At this point in the story, there are not enough pages left in which to elaborate.)
I almost forgot—I read this entire book out loud. I split the project between the toddler’s bath times and the baby being awake at absurd hours, so between the two of them they got the whole story. It was a blast, because the zany characters lend themselves to a variety of voices. I don’t think my audience fully appreciated it… but I’ll consider it a warm-up for when they really want to travel into the tollbooth.